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Expatriate Education

The NYT has a good article about US students getting their baccalaureates abroad (specifically in the UK and Ireland). It prompted, in order, the following reactions:

  1. When I applied to college, I found myself anxious about the prospect of leaving Michigan. However, two years later, I would have transferred to a European university in a heartbeat.
  2. I’m not sure how I feel about a more specialized baccalaureate — I’ve pretty much resisted specialization throughout my academic career — but generally speaking, so much of the UK system, from college entry to academic hiring, feels eminently sane when compared with the US.
  3. “My top schools where I want to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne. My safety’s Harvard.”
  4. Prediction: the schools listed will see their American apps triple next year, especially when word gets out that it’s easier for Americans to get in than it is for native Brits. (Cheapness is another factor, but in my experience working with college admissions, a secondary one.)
December 1, 2008 / Uncategorized


Here’s a specific experience that is doubtless useless when generalized: getting my MPhil degree at Cambridge was absurdly easy compared to what I know from friends about an MA or MS at nearly any decent US university.

Point 2: As I recall, the BA degree at Cambridge was a three-year program.

Point 3: And, most absurdly, the MA degree at Cambridge or Oxford is NOT an earned degree. You get it automatically for living one year past your BA.

I effectively transferred from a small New England liberal-arts college to complete a three-year B.A. in English at Oxford. Here are some things I learned:

1) Depending upon the exchange rate, it can be half as expensive as attending an Ivy League.

2) It sucks that people can “see through” the “M.A.” designation at Oxbridge, because I can tell you — the amount of work required was equal to a BA+MA degree. I went from Oxford to an M.A. program at the University of Chicago and found that my reading list included books required in the first term of first year at Oxford.

3) Specialization has a number of advantages, and a number of disadvantages. Through my education I excel at making connections between ideas but don’t have a great understanding of the state-of-the-art of other fields.

4) Oxbridge is way behind the U.S. at integrating technology into its educational process throughout all disciplines. This is a major failing.

5) Oxbridge’s curriculum changes very slowly. This has certain advantages and disadvantages as well — it is hesitant to adopt trends, which means it avoids being swept up by flavor-of-the-month theories. It also means you end up being less marketable.

6) Oxford’s undergrad academic standards are far higher and harder than the Ivy League. American students I knew, who had gone straight from American high-school educations (even top-tier private ones) found themselves struggling academically. I knew people from Sarah Lawrence doing a year abroad at Oxford. They were shocked: A-level work at SL would be B- at Oxford. A summa-cum-laude graduate of Yale read some of my undergraduate essays, and was astounded at the amount of research they entailed.

7) Oxbridge’s career-counseling and alumni network is virtually nonexistent in the U.S. I do not have the advantage of the “old-school tie” in gaining employment.

This last point about the alumni network is really important; sure, lots of people get jobs and other opportunities because they got a degree at a top-rep university, but a lot of the real value comes from the value of the very specific contacts associated with a particular school — classmates, alumni, allied institutions, business partnerships, etc. A lot of that doesn’t transfer — and might even be more difficult for non-native students to recognize and take advantage of in the first place.

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